MILWAUKEE -- Less than five minutes into the Milwaukee Bucks' 110-105 victory over the New York Knicks on Friday night, Brook Lopez was called for a defensive three-second violation. It was the best moment of the season for the Bucks on that side of the ball. Not because Lopez gave away a free throw – which Jalen Brunson missed – but because he was in the paint long enough to get caught.
Defense was a staple of the Bucks' success in the Mike Budenholzer era, but their performance through the first four games of Adrian Griffin's tenure was, bluntly, a disaster. They were getting torched at the rim and from the 3-point line, giving up a ton of points in transition, and, most importantly, looked uncomfortable in Griffin's more aggressive scheme.
After their embarrassing defeat to the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday night, in which they gave up 130 points, some veteran players had enough.
"Sometimes as coaches we are too smart for our own selves," Griffin explained. "[A] couple players came to me -- I won't disclose -- but they wanted Brook deeper in the drop and I was smart enough to listen to them. It paid off tonight.
"As a [former] player, it helps me relate to the players because the players are in the trenches. We watch it on film, but they live it. The players aren't always correct with their assessment, but I think it's wise to at least listen to them."
Griffin listened, and the results arrived immediately. Lopez barely left the paint in the first quarter, as he camped out and shut off the rim. He actually picked up a second defensive three-second violation a few minutes after the first, but the price was worth it. The Knicks were 3-of-11 in the paint in the first quarter, and Lopez had two blocks.
The veteran big man finished as the Defensive Player of the Year runner-up last season because of his elite rim protection, and it was on full display on Friday as he returned to his preferred method of defense. His eight blocks were one shy of his career-high, and more than he had in the first four games of the season combined.
Lopez was "so appreciative," not only of Griffin's willingness to adjust initially, but to have "full trust" in the drop coverage even though Jalen Brunson -- who finished with 45 points -- was going off.
"I'm out there trying to be there for my teammates, help the guys, be in the paint for them, protect them, have their backs," Lopez said. "So it's great, to have coach be that same way for me."
With Lopez leading the way, the Bucks turned in their best defensive effort of the season. Most notably, the Knicks shot just 57.1% at the rim after the Bucks allowed opponents to shoot a staggering 80.1% there in the first four games.
Even the guards,, "noticed a difference right away" with Lopez in drop coverage.
"You can tell that he's comfortable calling the game that way," Lillard said. "He knows how to navigate being in the paint, he's behind everything so he can see. I just heard him talking a lot more tonight because he's back there seeing everything. For us guys who play a lot on the perimeter, hearing a guy back there communicating, hearing his voice directing traffic, it's extremely helpful."
The Bucks still have a lot of work to do on both sides of the ball as they adjust to this new coaching staff and roster, but Friday night's win was a much-needed sign of real progress to calm everyone's nerves.